`Missing' Rwandan refugees fall prey to whim of big-power rivalry

Realpolitik, not racism, is at root of row over military intervention, writes John Lichfield

The fate, condition - even the existence - of up to 700,000 "missing" Rwandan refugees has become a political football on three continents.

A proposed international force for central Africa, agreed in principle last week, has become mired in disagreements and suspicion on the scope and purposes of the mission. Officers from 20 nations meet in Stuttgart today to "review military options". The meeting has twice been delayed; no decisions are expected. Despite the pleas of aid agencies, it remains unclear, seven days on, how large a force can be assembled and when, if ever, it will be sent.

The voluntary, homeward flood of 500,000 Rwandan refugees in the past five days has thrown planning of the mission into confusion. The main purpose of intervention was to escort aid to the refugees, who fled the 1994 Rwandan civil war, and encourage them to go home. Most of the remaining facts - how many Rwandan refugees are in Zaire? where are they? how hungry are they? who, if anybody, is controlling them? - are disputed or unknown.

The US, Britain and a number of Africa countries are increasingly doubtful about military intervention, suspecting that, as the refugee crisis ebbs, the force may be drawn into a struggle for control of Zaire. Washington and London say they will not commit forces until the situation is clearer. The US is unlikely to send combat troops in any circumstances.

France, Belgium and Spain, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and all humanitarian agencies on the ground say military action is still needed to find and protect 700,000 "missing" Rwandans. The return of thousands of Hutu refugees from camps around Goma should not blind the world to the possible plight of thousands of others caught up in the Zairean civil war. Rwanda insists the missing Hutus are a myth. Canada, which agreed to lead the intervention force, appears to be in two minds.

Yesterday Emma Bonino, the European Union's humanitarian aid commissioner, in effect accused the world community of racist indifference to the refugees' plight. "How many lives have to be in danger ...to justify a deployment of troops?" she said in a speech in the European Parliament. "Is it the colour of their skin which makes the difference?"

Cynicism about Western arguments and motives is understandable but the core issue is not racism but realpolitik. The US, Britain and South Africa fear intervention which might have repercussions throughout central Africa. Although the force's mandate would be limited to helping refugees, they suspect French pressure for its deployment is not driven purely by humanitarian concern.

The presence of forces of this kind has a habit of freezing local conflicts. In this case, it might check the Zairean rebels who have defeated the Zairean army and remnants of the genocidal former Rwandan government army, which ruled the Hutu refugee camps. The rebels have been presented as separatists but they say their aim is to rid Zaire of the regime of President Mobutu Sese Seko. France is suspected of wishing to prop up his regime by introducing a new, international, military element. US officials say they have no particular interest in seeing the rebels succeed; they just do not want to get involved.

However, France, in its turn, is suspicious of the close relationship between the US and the Rwandan government, dominated by English-speaking, long-exiled Tutsi forces which won the 1994 civil war (who have no love of France, a supporter of the previous, Hutu, regime). Paris has no particular faith in the corrupt Mr Mobutu but fears its influence over francophone Africa may be further diminished if Zaire - or large parts of it - fall to forces allied to a Rwandan government distrustful of France.

In coded language, each side accuses the other of ignoring, or overplaying, the humanitarian crisis for its own wider political ends. The aid agencies say geo-politics means little to the thousands - 400,000? 500,000? 700,000? - of Hutu refugees trapped around Bukavu or wandering in the vast Zairean forests to the west. Satellites pinpoint the missing thousands

Geneva (agencies) - The UNHCR said it had found the 700,000 missing Rwandan Hutu refugees in eastern Zaire, using Western satellite and aerial pictures. The largest group, of 250,000 people, was located 45 miles from Bukavu.

Meanwhile, refugees said Zairean rebels were detaining young men as Rwandans emerged from the hills above Goma. They also reported fighting between the rebels and Rwandan Hutu militiamen driven out of the huge Mugunga refugee camp by the rebels last week.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
On set of the Secret Cinema's Back to the Future event
filmBut why were Back to the Future screenings cancelled?
Susan Sarandon described David Bowie as
peopleSusan Sarandon reveals more on her David Bowie romance
Lewis Hamilton walks back to the pit lane with his Mercedes burning in the background
Formula 1
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con
comic-con 2014
Arsenal supporters gather for a recent ‘fan party’ in New Jersey
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
newsComedy club forced to apologise as maggots eating a dead pigeon fall out of air-conditioning
Life and Style
Balmain's autumn/winter 2014 campaign, shot by Mario Sorrenti and featuring Binx Walton, Cara Delevingne, Jourdan Dunn, Ysaunny Brito, Issa Lish and Kayla Scott
fashionHow Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

BI Developer - Sheffield - £35,000 ~ £40,000 DOE

£35000 - £40000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client is...

Employment Solicitor

Highly Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: MANCHESTER - Senior Employment Solici...

Senior Risk Manager - Banking - London - £650

£600 - £650 per day: Orgtel: Conduct Risk Liaison Manager - Banking - London -...

Commercial Litigation Associate

Highly Attractive Package: Austen Lloyd: CITY - COMMERCIAL LITIGATION - GLOBAL...

Day In a Page

Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

Jokes on Hollywood

With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Edinburgh Fringe 2014: The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee

Edinburgh Fringe 2014

The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee
Evan Davis: The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing to take over at Newsnight

The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing

What will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

Finding the names for America’s shame

The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
Inside a church for Born Again Christians: Speaking to God in a Manchester multiplex

Inside a church for Born Again Christians

As Britain's Anglican church struggles to establish its modern identity, one branch of Christianity is booming
Rihanna, Kim Kardashian and me: How Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Parisian couturier Pierre Balmain made his name dressing the mid-century jet set. Today, Olivier Rousteing – heir to the house Pierre built – is celebrating their 21st-century equivalents. The result? Nothing short of Balmania
Cancer, cardiac arrest, HIV and homelessness - and he's only 39

Incredible survival story of David Tovey

Tovey went from cooking for the Queen to rifling through bins for his supper. His is a startling story of endurance against the odds – and of a social safety net failing at every turn
Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride